I used to write reviews of books and audiobooks on a routine basis on this blog, and got away from that practice to focus on my own fiction; with my new interest in diversification, I’ve decided to revisit that practice.
“The Magician’s Lie,” the first novel from poet and playwright Greer Macallister, is a murder mystery set in Iowa at the turn of the twentieth century. The action begins quickly, the corpse appearing within the first ten minutes of the audiobook; as it’s been found among the stage props of a famous illusionist, a small-town police officer immediately arrests the illusionist, and restrains her in his tiny station.
The novel then alternates between two voices (recited to good effect by two different readers in the audiobook): an autobiographical narrative from the illusionist, and a third-person account of the officer’s interrogation. Of these, the former is by far the more interesting, as the illusionist provides a vivid description of her career, from her start as a Broadway dancer through her apprenticeship in a travelling show to her establishment as the Amazing Arden, the most famous female illusionist of her day. And in the background of that career is a personal story of abandonment and abuse that makes Arden’s accomplishments seem even more significant.
Arden’s first-person story could stand on its own as a winning period piece; unfortunately, it’s combined with the officer’s interrogation, a far weaker narrative which severely weakens the novel. The dialog between the two characters is at times clichéd, at other times unrealistic; obvious lines of questioning are overlooked by the officer (since the victim is allegedly the illusionist’s husband, why does she show no remorse for his passing while maintaining her innocence?). The officer has his own tragic tale lurking in the background, but unlike Arden’s story the officer’s does little to enhance the overall work.
In the end, “The Magician’s Lie” is both intriguing and frustrating. Arden’s tale is compelling, but the flaws in the murder mystery framing that narrative are like mud splattered over stained glass, nearly obscuring the novel’s finer points. Macallister’s novel definitely has its moments, but I can’t help feeling it could have been much better.